I met Raymond Carver in 1980 when I took a two-week summer workshop which he taught in Port Townsend, Washington. In fact, I wrote my first story to get into that class. Before that, I had written only journalism, but Carver's story, "So Much Water So Close to Home," got me writing fiction, converted me, I should say, because reading that story was a revelation.
In this story a man goes fishing for the weekend up on the Naches River. The first night out he and his buddies find the body of a young woman floating in the water, and rather than pack up and notify the authorities, they tie her to the bank, and fish for the rest of the weekend. Carver says, "They pleaded fatigue, the late hour, the fact that the girl wasn't going anywhere."
The story is told from the point of view of a woman, the wife of the man who goes fishing with his friends. It is told with an uncanny and exact sense of her fear, curiosity, revulsion and desire. The psychological home truths in that story knocked my socks off.
Within a matter of weeks, and with the synchronicity I have come to expect once an idea becomes lodged in the unconscious, a brochure came across my desk announcing that Carver would be teaching writing at Centrum in July. He could take up to sixteen students, and you had to submit a short story along with your application.
At that time, I was in Portland, Oregon, running a center for film and videomakers. The difficulty of keeping a non-profit arts organization viable left me no time to even crack the spine of a time management manual. Yet somehow, I cancelled my life for the next eight weekends and wrote my first short story. I shut myself in my apartment, never changed out of my bathrobe, and didn't answer the phone.
First, I reread what short fiction I had on hand -- Katherine Mansfield, Ernest Hemingway, and that fat, red paperback of John Cheever's stories, which had just come out in March.
From these examples, I tried to figure out what a short story actually was: how dialogue, narrative, description, transitions and scene worked. Now, 14 years later, I understand this process would have been easier had I limited myself to contemporary work. As it was, I gave equal attention to Jane Bowles and Stephen Crane.
At the same time, I was sifting through memory and idea to find a story of my own, a small starter story, one that might rise above personal chronicle and speak meaning to another person. Told from what angle, I wondered, and at what remove? Where does an action properly start, and when has enough been told?
One Saturday morning, I set up a folding card table in the sunny back bedroom and, banishing the ghosts of spiritually wounded soldiers, disheartened commuters, promiscuous spinsters, and of brides ushered into Yellow Sky, I wrote for twelve hours straight. From time to time, I paced down the hall to the coffee pot in the kitchen.
My story was about a married man who plans to leave his girlfriend. He has taken her to a small Spanish restaurant, where he hopes to quickly get past the difficult announcement so they can enjoy their last dinner together.
Was it a successful? My assessment was that either it was a shoo-in for a place in Best American Short Stories 1980, or it was something far less than a story, a quirky glimpse of two mean-spirited people, having neither meaning nor form nor grace. I vacillated wildly between these two judgements even as I dropped it into the blue mailbox on the corner.
* * *
When I first saw Raymond Carver, a big, solid man, over six feet, he was dressed in a plaid shirt and khaki slacks, and seated in one of those chairs with a wrap-around writing surface, his long legs jutting into the middle of our circle of chairs.
"Here's the way we'll do it," he suggested, his low voice almost a mumble. We had eight working days, and he proposed the class meet at 2:00 in the afternoon, using mornings to write and work with him privately. "If that's okay with you," he added, and looked around the room with a questioning glance.
Manuscripts were circulated in advance so we could read them and prepare for critique. In class each writer was asked to read his or her story aloud and, if there were time, Carver might have a second person read it so the writer could hear it in someone else's voice. As the group discussed the story, the writer was to remain silent, so as not to be put on the defensive and to better attend to and transcribe what was said. I have since heard that this is the Iowa method, that is, the type of workshop Ray himself took at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1963. A decade later he had taught there himself.
Ray generally began the critique by asking, "Is this a story?" He would ask this of even the most ill-formed, hopeless narrative, and with a dogged seriousness, help us to discern why or why not.
If someone asked a jokey question he never responded in kind. He always answered carefully, as though understanding that jokes often come from nervousness or self-consciousness. If someone made an ironic, self-deprecating aside, or -- God forbid -- a cruel remark, he stared off quietly for a moment, often smoking, patiently waiting for us to recall ourselves to generosity.
Our work was to identify the story's intentions and set about helping the author better achieve them. We were, meanwhile, vigilant about inconsistencies in point of view, passive constructions, awkward inversions, and the like. Carver told us to make our remarks specific, and to be constructive.
He offered encouragement to everyone, no matter how unpromising a story might appear to the class. Not every teacher does, I learned. One woman in our workshop had studied with Robert Stone the year before and he had advised her to quit writing altogether! Of course, she was crushed. I have since read William Styron's Paris Review interview, where he says, "The professor should weed out the good from the bad, cull them like a farmer, and not encourage the ones who haven't got something."
Raymond Carver encouraged us all, and left the weeding to God.
Along with kindness and respect, Ray had a wonderful sense of humor, as evidenced in almost all his writing. He told us how he had sat in on a trial in California where a girl on the witness stand kept saying, "and then he goes," "and then I go." He coveted these cozy usages, and this particular one shows up in "Gazebo." He likewise loved a good new word, and I remember how he was charmed by Ellie Scott's use of the word "undercarriage," and asked her if he could borrow it.
"Short stories are closer to poetry than to the novel," he said. "They are built like poetry, line by line."
Without turning them into rules, he offered suggestions for making the writing easier. "Short story writers have enough going against them without trying the omniscient voice. Third person limited gives us plenty to try to deal with," he told beginners.
Mostly, he told us what worked for him. "I try to write fast, in long hand. I never spend more than two days on a first draft, and I like to do it in one day, if possible.
"Put everything into that first draft," he insisted. "The first draft is the most important you'll ever write -- besides the last draft." Ray called these clumsy, overwritten first drafts "money in the bank." They are what we work with over the next weeks and months. He expected us to rewrite a story two or three dozen times if that's what it took. His story "Neighbors" started out at ten times the length, he said. Writing, he constantly reminded us, was a laborious and exacting process. We should learn to take joy in rewriting.
I was always amazed to see how he could reach down into one of our paragraphs, pull up a single awkward sentence, and carefully refashion it until it became perfect and shining in his hands.
Carver assured us that we were engaged in a very serious enterprise. He said John Gardner taught him that at Chico State College in the late fifties, and he talked about Gardner's fastidiousness and patience, both as writer and teacher. If we meant to be writers we should expect a prolonged and arduous development; Ray told us we should expect to work.
For the most part, he steered the discussion away from publishing, though he did tell us the story of his own "red letter day," in 1960 when he received his first letters of acceptance. Two came on the same day! One was from Western Humanities Review, for his short story "Pastoral," and they paid in contributor's copies; the other was from Targets (now defunct), who sent a dollar for his poem "The Brass Ring."
"One dollar!" one of the students groaned.
"But then nobody ever asked you to write," Carver said, with a smile of amusement.
In 1980, Carver's only published book of fiction was Will You Please Be Quiet, Please, though he had three small press volumes of poetry. Most of his work appeared in literary quarterlies. He passed around copies of TriQuarterly and Antaeus to show us what a literary quarterly looked like.
Outside of class, we only occasionally got a glimpse of Ray, walking alone across the wide lawns of Fort Worden, where Centrum is housed. He didn't hang out. I remember reading somewhere in Norman Mailer that men walk with a bear-like walk from the shoulders or a cat-like walk from the hips. (The preposterousness of this distinction has kept it alive in my mind for three decades.) Yet, Carver's was a bear-like shoulder walk. He would come alone into the Washington State Park Service cafeteria, and take his orange plastic food tray to a small table along the wall, never joining the long table where we usually ate. He did not mean to be a pal and he was certainly not on the make.
I was curious about him, of course, and managed to piece together a sketchy biography.
Ray's dad had originally come to the Pacific Northwest from Arkansas in 1934, looking for steady work. After a construction job on the Grand Coulee Dam, he moved his family to Clatskanie, Oregon, where Ray was born, and then to Yakima, Washington, where he went to work as a saw filer at the Boise Cascade mill. Carver was raised there in Yakima, a small town built around the sawmill and apple orchards.
I knew this landscape, where people drink straight shots, sitting around waiting for the next thing to happen. I had been raised in Independence, Oregon, which also had a sawmill, plus bean and strawberry fields. In my high school, the sons of millworkers got C's in English -- or worse. Good ballplayers but bad writers. Carver has said that he finished high school very near the bottom of his class.
I remember he named the day he had quit drinking: June 2, 1977.
And there had been a long marriage, whose ruin smoldered in all of his works.
If booze was the gasoline, his kids were the lit match, and for years his life was in danger of burning right down to the ground. He and his first wife, Maryann Burk, ended up with two babies before Ray was twenty, and in the essay "Fires," he would later say they were the biggest influence on his writing, a "heavy and baleful influence." He used those words.
Booze and kids, no time and no money. These were Ray's demons, all well documented in his writing.
Carver had years of money trouble. In his stories men are out of work, and people have to sell their car in a hurry. He knew the dreadful sound of the bill collector's footsteps creaking across the loose floorboards of the front porch. He worked at the mill. He also cut tulips, pumped gas, and swabbed hospital floors. At the end of his shift, he would return to a household made chaotic by poverty. He sometimes went out and sat in the car and tried to write his stories there.
In the evenings at Centrum, the writing faculty read their work in the little military chapel. The night Ray read, I was in the front pew. From the Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? collection, he read "Fat," the story about the waitress who is mesmerized by an obese customer. Then he read "Gazebo," from his second collection, which Knopf had just bought. This is the one where a couple troubleshoot their damaged marriage holed up in a motel room with a bottle of scotch, and where the narrator says "then I go," "then Holly goes." It is hilarious: he had to stop several times and wait for the laughter to die down. In the front pew, I was laughing as hard as anyone. Then I remember -- it was the line where Duane says, "When I look back on it, all of our important decisions have been figured out when we were drinking" -- my throat did a sudden clutch, and I found myself sobbing openly. Like other Carver stories, "Gazebo" has a smooth surface and a fatal undertow.
It's to Centrum's credit that the writing program consists of daily workshops, and nightly readings, and not much else goes on. This is all you need. I once saw a brochure for a Berkeley workshop which offered movies, cocktail parties, and appointments with agents and psychotherapists!
Yet I do remember one twilight reception for the Centrum writing students. Ray did not come to that, and I imagined it was because a jug of red wine was set out. The purpose of the reception was to integrate the several writing sections but, predictably, the detective story writers clotted together, as did children's fiction, the novel, and the short story. In our particular huddle, we sipped wine from plastic glasses and confessed our thrill at being accepted to study with Carver. One woman said she was attending on a $1,000 inheritance from an elderly aunt; another had hitchhiked from Tucson, riding in a carful of Pima people who were, maddeningly, taking their time; a young man said he'd received his acceptance on June 23, his birthday. We tried to guess at how many applied who didn't get in.
Then a woman who helped out in the office spoke up and said there'd been no screening process whatsoever.
Our group fell silent.
"Only sixteen people applied," she said.
I remember the cheese looked cracked and the carrots were beginning to curl and, what the hell, Ray wasn't going to show. We began drifting back to our dorms.
Yet there were some fine writers in our group, among them, Craig Lesley, who came with chapters of what would later be published as Winterkill, Alex Hancock, already working on Into the Light, and Ellie Scott, whose stories now appear in many quarterlies.
* * *
I worked hard over the next two years, meanwhile trying not to worry about publishing. Ray had said that we must simply learn to write.
By that time, I had resigned as director of the Northwest Media Project, and had moved to Seattle. I had a contract to produce the Motion Picture Seminar of the Northwest at the Seattle Center Playhouse, and for six months of the year I did that work, and for six months of the year I wrote stories.
Then in 1982, Ray was scheduled to teach again at Centrum, and I went back.
The first thing I noticed was that he looked tired, and he seemed to be smoking more. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love had been published, and The New Yorker had run "Chef's House" and "Where I'm Calling From," two stories about drinkers struggling to quit. This, astonishingly, in the magazine which then identified the good life with cocktails -- in cartoons, in fiction, and in the Algonquin Hotel round table legends of Dorothy Parker's era. Later that same month, July of 1982, they would print "The Bridle," where a man gets boozed up and dives into the pool from the roof of a cabana -- and misses the pool. Their full-page Tanqueray ads, precipitation dripping from icy green bottles, would never look the same to me.
When we asked him, Carver agreed that success made things easier. "I don't waste as much time," he said. "Usually when I sit down I know what I'm going to do."
My strongest memory of that summer is of a private conference I had with Ray. I had been working steadily in the two years since I'd seen him, and I attached considerable importance to this conference.
He had my manuscript in advance, and I went to his little Centrum cottage at the appointed time. He invited me to sit down -- I sat on the sofa -- but he remained standing and he shifted around the room as he spoke. He asked me what I did for a living. "Writers have to do something to buy time: there's no money in it."
I explained briefly about my work, though I remember thinking, this isn't computing for him. For the Motion Picture Seminar, I booked speakers, arranged flights and hotels, worked with printers, caterers, projectionists, and film equipment manufacturers.
"We need stories about how people cope with their work," Carver had said in class. But my work seemed vague and abstract to him, I think. At any rate, he didn't pursue it. After a moment, he picked up my story from the table and stared at it. When he looked back up at me, he said, "You're a writer." From him, that meant a lot.
In the late 80s, it was common for critics and editors to bemoan the numbers of Carver clones, but Ray never inflicted his own style on a student. If there were imitators they must have, on their own, found much to admire in the clean, spare, nuanced storytelling, and tried to reproduce it.
Gordon Lish, who was also teaching at Centrum that year, was another matter: a Knopf editor and former fiction editor at Esquire, Lish presented himself as the arbiter of East Coast literary chic.
Lish met his class in the morning, outdoors on the grass. Those of us in Ray's workshop regarded this as an open invitation to seat ourselves around the periphery and listen to what he had to say. Lish was much given to rules. "The first two sentences comprise the attack," he explained. "The three essentials of the attack are stance, authority and news."
Craig Lesley was also back at Centrum, studying in Lish's group, and I was astonished to hear the advice he got. Craig had given Lish a story about some Indians at the Pendleton Round Up, who were in the back of a pick-up, passing around a brown-bagged bottle of rose. "That's not news," Lish said. "We've all seen Indians drinking wine before. Show me Indians in the back of a pick-up drinking martinis. That's news!" (I crib this story from Craig, who is too kind and forgiving to ever tell it in print.)
For himself, Ray liked all kinds of writing, including the lush prose of Faulkner, the darkness of Dostoievski, and Conrad's romances. He said he'd learned to prune adjectives and adverbs from reading Hemingway, but warned us, "you can't trust what Hemingway says about writing." His taste in writers was catholic. He said he was once so moved after hearing Joseph Brodsky read that he went home and stayed up all night writing poems, determined to never lapse from poetry again. With great enthusiasm he delivered to us the names of writers he loved -- not just Tolstoi, Joyce, Babel, and Flannery O'Connor, but also his contemporaries: Joan Didion, Larry Woiwode, Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff, Leslie Silko, Barry Hannah, Ann Beattie, and James Purdy, a master craftsman whom he'd read with admiration for years.
Mainly, he looked for feeling. Here's a Carver quote from my notebook: "A short story or a novel or a poem should deliver a certain number of emotional punches, and you can judge that work by how strong these punches are and how many are thrown."
He was especially strong on his colleagues here in the Pacific Northwest. They were his pride and joy. "The literature of the West is in its infancy," he said. He told us to read Richard Hugo, who was living in Montana at the time, his poems, of course, and also his essays on writing, collected in The Triggering Town. Ray was rooting for Bill Kittredge, Ursula Le Guin, John Keeble, Marilynne Robinson, and Jim Welch. He rooted for Tess Gallagher, then his partner of four years, and for Richard Ford, who was also his close friend.
Ford, Ray told us, belonged to the great brotherhood of rewriters. "He wrote his novel, A Piece of My Heart, in the first person. It didn't work. It had taken him three years to write, yet he rewrote it in the third person. That took a year and a half." Ford's books were then out of print, but I wrote his name down, too.
Ray had this vision that there was a renaissance of West Coast writing afoot, not unlike Paris in the 20s, or the American South of any decade we might name. Ten years later, when I saw Howard Junker's map of everyone he's published in Zyzzyva (limited to West Coast writers), I could almost believe.
In 1983, something wonderful happened to Carver: he received the Harold and Mildred Strauss Living Award, $35,000 a year for five years, tax free. In my selfish heart, I begrudged its one condition: he was expected to not teach, but to work full-time on his writing.
He quit his position at Syracuse, and quit giving workshops. I was never to study with him again.
When next I saw him, at a party in Seattle following his reading at the University of Washington, I asked him, wistfully, if he missed the teaching and he said, "Not really. No." "Well, you may not be my teacher any longer," I said, "but I'm still your student."
And he said, "Why bless your heart," which was a favorite expression of his.
I sent him a note when my first story was accepted. "Crossing the publication line is important," Ray wrote back, "and helps a lot to validate what one has been doing so long and so seriously. I'm glad for you."
I saw him again at the University of Washington where we gathered in the autumn of 1986, remembering Richard Hugo. This might have been the end of my direct involvement with him but for something which happened in the spring of 1987, when an old friendship from the film world brought my life full circle.
I had given up my contract with the Motion Picture Seminar two years before, and was almost out of touch with the many filmmakers I had brought to the Northwest over the years. But that spring Jill Godmilow phoned me as she passed through Seattle on a promotional tour of her first feature, Waiting for the Moon, a film about Gertrude Stein in Paris.
Over drinks at the Pink Door in Pike Place Market, Godmilow told me that she had read Carver's collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love on the flight home from Paris. She remembered I knew Carver. "I just have this feeling," she said, "that the stories actually happened. Do you know if they are true?"
"True" can be a disconcerting word for a fiction writer, and I remember giving a non committal shrug.
Never mind the answer to that question, she was excited about their possibilities for film. "I have this idea," she said, "that by careful sequencing, the stories could be told about one man's life -- I'd make it one protagonist. Otherwise I would want to be as faithful to the original as possible. I'd even have the screen go to black between each story. What do you think?"
"It's a very literary idea," I said, "a purist's Carver film."
But when she asked me if I would help her write the screenplay, I was floored, not only because of my great respect for her as a filmmaker, but because I'd never written a screenplay. Clearly she needed a real screenwriter. I ordered another gin.
But, she argued, I knew Raymond Carver and knew the territory, that is, the locations -- Yakima, Chico, Eureka, Cupertino. I knew the alcohol culture. (She had just handed her empty chardonnay glass to our waiter and told him to bring her a Perrier.) I was not a union writer and, therefore, affordable. She knew I admired her work, and that meant a lot to her; it would be critical in a long collaboration. She counted on me having a ferocious loyalty to Carver's work, more than any "real" screenwriter would have. Besides, I had written her an enthusiastic letter about Carver from the Centrum workshop back in 1980. Apparently, she had just come across this letter in an old shoe box, and took it as a sign.
Her proposition flattered me. I quickly calculated the opportunity to make an end run around that nasty codicil in the Harold and Mildred Strauss Living Award, that he shouldn't teach. Well, yes, I thought, trading stem glasses with the waiter, but he might mentor...
In October of 1987, we flew to Syracuse with a 40-page treatment to show to Ray and Tess. That was the beginning of the cancer, I remember. Ray had just had two-thirds of a lung removed. "It's okay now," he insisted. "I'm okay."
They served Alaska salmon, a West Coast sign of warm welcome, and I tried to send Jill a silent reassurance down the length of the table.
After we ate, Ray took the treatment to his study. As Jill and Tess sprawled chatting on the living room rug, I sat distracted on the couch, wondering what was going through his mind upstairs. In stringing the stories together the way Jill envisioned, I had presumed a single protagonist. But I also had insinuated so much biographical information into the script that the protagonist was, implicitly, Ray. Would he sense that I had eliminated the distance between art and artist (already a slim margin in his work)? Would he feel his privacy invaded? I worried about it.
After a time -- about an hour, I think -- Ray returned. Their two-story house had a wooden staircase, and I heard each thunking footfall. He stepped into the living room, and Jill and Tess fell silent, and he looked at me and he said, in his soft mumble, "Great. I think it's great."
I wanted to throw my arms around Jill and shriek, but I stayed put. Ray came and sat with me on the couch, and we discussed the treatment for an hour or so, turning the pages slowly, reviewing his margin notes.
In May of 1988, when I saw him at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle for his last reading there, he had just that day received the 14-page option agreement. I'd gotten my copy, too, and I confessed I'd filed it without reading it.
"I signed it without reading it," Ray said, and he laughed.
That night he read "Elephant," about the man who is hounded for money by every member of his family, another of those stories which starts out hilarious and by the end you can hear your own heartbeat. He didn't seem to have enough wind for reading it, but he made it through. His face was puffy, bloated. There were rumors flying around that his lung cancer had metastasized to the brain, but Ray continued to insist he was okay. "I'm going to make it," he told me.
At that time, my kid sister was also fighting cancer. She desperately wished for just one conversation that did not lead off with that ponderous question, "How are you, really?" but her decision was never to conceal the truth: she had been told she was terminal.
A month later, when Ray and Tess went through a marriage ceremony, I still didn't read the signs.
Meanwhile, a Writers Guild strike was underway, and the entire film industry had gone into a stall. Because of this, Jill negotiated to postpone the effective date of her option. On August 1, the strike still unsettled, our option went into effect.
On August 2, Ray died in Port Angeles of metastatic lung cancer.
On August 3, the Writers Guild strike was settled.
On August 4, 1988, Tess Gallagher buried Raymond Carver in Port Angeles.
I could not go to the graveside service because I had
contracted to spend the week typing for Perkins, Coie, and I sat in the law firm's 25th-floor Portland office feeling miserable. During my coffee break, a secretary for one of the litigators darted through the lunchroom, in mid-conversation about why some girlfriend was leaving her husband. She lit a cigarette, took two desperate drags and stubbed it out, then grabbed a Diet Coke from the ice box and rushed toward the door, leaving this line floating in the air behind her: "He just never made her skirts fly."
I wrote that down and felt a moment of private communion with Ray.
* * *
By this time, I had moved back to Oregon. I kept writing, published some more stories, won a couple of prizes and, in 1989, was asked to teach a writing class at Marylhurst College.
We never made our Carver film. Jill came up $250,000 short of her bottom-line budget. With four years of her life into the project and no film to show for it, she accepted a teaching position at Notre Dame in the fall of 1992.
People die to us by degrees. When I quit working on the screenplay, I lost Ray a second time. Now his poems and stories are what is left. In these he remains my teacher.
Once in awhile, a student will interrupt my class to ask about Raymond Carver. "I mean, what was he like as a person and a teacher?"
"How many have read Raymond Carver?" When I ask for a show of hands, usually half of the class responds.
You must, I insist, read the work. Get Where I'm Calling From, start at the beginning, and read the book straight through. These are the stories Carver selected for the only edition of his collected works, and this is the order in which they were written. Read "Fat," which is haunting and elliptical, read "Cathedral," a pivotal story for Carver, where his language begins to turn fuller, read "Errand," his last published story, which illuminates a moment in the death of Chekhov, a writer whom he loved.
If you read these stories in order, I tell my students, you will see that, without sacrificing precision, Ray was putting more experience, more emotional charge into the work. And that is what all of us -- Richard Ford and Gordon Lish, Jill Godmilow and Tess Gallagher, and each one of us in this room -- strive so hard to do.